On Saturday 8th May I completed the Spire Ultra which is a course around Chesterfield that, according to my Strava, is 32.5 miles long and involves 3,800 ft of ascent. I took 7 hours 10 mins (6 hours 35 mins moving time) and finished 64th out of 86 starters. It was my second Ultra and compared relatively well with my first, the Amberaid last year. That was 31.9 miles long, involved 4,100 ft of ascent and took me 7 hours and 54 minutes (6 hours 46 mins moving time).
Incidentally, the winner of the Spire Ultra was Julian Hood who took a mere 4 hours 16 minutes. Interestingly, Dr Hood’s marathon PB is 2 hours 37 mins, mine is 4 hours 28 mins. So while he can run 26.2 miles in 58.6% of the time I can, he can only run an ultra in 59.5% of my time. To put this another way, if the Spire Ultra was a handicap based on marathon times, I would have beaten him. I look forward to receiving my trophy Jamie.
It was a great event. I learnt a lot from the day and wanted to record the lessons learned in the hope that I take note of at least some of them at future events.
Lesson 1: Wear appropriate clothes
The rain was pretty relentless for the first few hours (or for all of the race if you’re Dr Hood) and unsurprisingly my budget Decathlon outer layer wasn’t up to the conditions. After an hour, all of my upper layers were wet through. It was also a cold day with a starting temperature of around 5 degrees Celsius. My thin running gloves were soon saturated and made my hands feel colder that if I wasn’t wearing them. My circulation isn’t brilliant and by the time I’d realised that I should take the gloves off, my fingers had stopped working.
I need to take more attention of weather forecasts in future and make sure I’ve got the right clothing for the conditions. Strangely, the cold and wet didn’t spoil the day but my disfunctioning digits meant I took longer at stops and couldn’t use my phone to navigate as effectively as I would have liked, which leads me to…
Lesson 2: A recce isn’t a recce if you don’t pay attention
Two weeks before the event, I did a recce of around 20 miles of the route with some friends. We had a fun leisurely run and enjoyed the lovely weather. On the day of the event there were a number of times when I wasn’t sure of turnings. A combination of the rain and my frozen fingers meant that I couldn’t use the GPX guide on my phone very easily and I found it hard to remember the route I had undertaken just two weeks before. I realised that I’d really been a “passenger” on the recce and hadn’t made the effort to actively remember the turn offs. On the day of the event I found myself another passenger, unfairly relying on others for direction and not contributing to this important part of the event. I was very fortunate to have one friend in particular who wasn’t so lax in her preparation and who saved the day on a number of occasions. Thanks Red!
Lesson 3: Be disciplined about fuelling in the last third of the race
The last few miles were hard. I know I’m stating the obvious here but I’d made them harder than they needed to be by being neglectful over fuelling. At the last stop, I’d taken so long to change my sodden clothes I’d neglected to fill up my Tailwind flask. On top of that, I didn’t use the gels that I’d taken specifically to give me a boost over the last few miles despite the fact that they were in my pocket. I am an idiot.
The main learning here is one of planning and discipline. Any run over 20 miles is outside my usual distance and my head tends to stop thinking of anything else than to just keep going. If I’d had stuck to my plan, taken my Tailwind and used my gels I’m sure the last few miles would have been less uncomfortable.
Lesson 4: I can go faster
While I am very happy with the improved time of the Spire Ultra compared with the Amberaid, I think there’s room for improvement that won’t see me a complete wreck at the end. I clearly could have stopped less; while I had some brilliant support (thanks Jonn) and the issue is to some extent weather dependent, it’s a matter to consider in future.
I also need to re-think if I really need to walk every hill. One great positive of the event is that I am no longer over awed or frightened by the distance. I may have been over cautious in my approach to hills to date but I think that was completely appropriate in my first two events. I now want to consider jogging up the gentler slopes and not be scared of running out of energy before the end. I was tired at the end of the Spire Ultra but I wasn’t completely spent and I need to consider the marginal gains that will not zap my energy too much but that will help me continue to improve my time.
Lesson 5: I can go further
I used to look with envy at the super humans that complete 50-60 mile events but I’ve started seriously considering that they may not be beyond my reach. Some events of this type of distance are over two days and I now believe I have it in me to do a two day 60 miler. I’d probably need to walk even more and be really careful in planning and pacing but the thought is there. Perhaps something to consider in 2022?
Lesson 6: The power of good company
On both Ultra events I have been blessed with fellow runners who have been fantastic company. Their advice, encouragement and banter have helped me go distances I’d not thought I was capable of and would have been impossible for me solo. Which leads me to…
Lesson 7: Set aspirations, share aspirations and be flexible
Pretty self-explanatory. I’m lucky to run with some fine folks and we know each other well enough to talk to each other about pace and expectations. These can change during an event and I think it pays not to expect everyone to want the same thing and understand they may change their mind. I think communication is the key here.
Here endeth the lesson to myself. I’ll hopefully remember to take my own advice at future events!